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What does music really do to us? Original Thinkers festival taps The Boss, scientists and revolutionaries for the answer

Egyptian protest musician Remy Essam, journalist Sarfraz Manzoor and researcher Bernadette Gonzalez experience music as savior, healer and peaceful weapon.

Journalist Safraz Manzoor, who wrote the screenplay for the movie "Blinded by the Light," shares with a crowd at the Original Thinkers festival in Telluride the role of Bruce Springsteen in his life as a young teenager in working class Great Britain. The photograph of Manzoor shows him on the final day of filming as the cast dances to "Born to Run." (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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TELLURIDE — Gwen Thompkins, a radio host and reporter from New Orleans, is playing clips from the Golden Record that NASA tucked into its 1977 Voyager spacecraft before it plumbed the most remote corners of the universe, a soundscape collected from around the planet including Chuck Berry and Louis Armstrong. 

“Music grabs us by the hand and lets us know we are not alone,” she says. “We can communicate what we mean to say in a song.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Original Thinkers fest in Telluride last weekend. A deluge of documentary films can leave me heavy-hearted, dragging under the weight carried by so many burdened souls across the world. Tough stories. The Rohingya. Young girls in Pakistan. A gasping planet. The poor. The neglected and mistreated.. 

But there in the middle of the ocean of Original Thinkers’ woeful wokeness was a beacon of light, asking “What does music really do to us?”

It was nothing short of a magical night, with stories, music and performances showing us — not telling us — exactly how our souls can swell with the just-right combination of rhythm and harmony shared with friends. 

Case in point: Sarfraz Manzoor.

In the 1980s, the young Pakistani was tracking toward a job in the local car factory and living next door to his parents in an arranged marriage when he started dreaming about a life outside working-class England’s Luton. At 16, starting high school, he tuned into Bruce Springsteen.

“It’s like nothing I’d ever heard before,” said Manzoor, whose biographical “Welcome to Bury Park” is the basis of the new comedy-drama movie “Blinded By The Light.” 

“I thought this guy, he’s singing about my life,” he said, citing the final line of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road:” “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.” “When I first heard that song I had no idea that Bruce Springsteen had ever visited Luton.” 

Screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor discusses the impact of music at the Original Thinkers festival in Telluride. Manzoor wrote the book “Greetings from Bury Park” about the influence of Bruce Springsteen’s music on his life and he also wrote the screenplay for the new movie “Blinded by the Light.” (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

At 19, Manzoor went on a pilgrimage to Asbury Park, New Jersey. In 1992 he started chasing Springsteen, and now has been to more than 150 of the American icon’s concerts, often queuing up early so he could watch from the front row.

“I wanted to use that music to change my life,” Manzoor said. 

And that it did. Flashing images of him arm-and-arm with his idol, Manzoor told a rapt crowd about his career arc, working as a journalist and eventually turning his book into a screenplay. He recalled the 1,000-word letter he had to write Springstreen, pleading for permission to include his music in the movie. 

Springsteen’s brief answer altered his life’s trajectory.

“I am all good with this,” The Boss wrote. 

On the final day of filming “Blinded by the Light,” the cast and crew gathered on a set dance floor and danced to Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Manzoor, showed the Telluride crowd a photo of himself on the dance floor. His arms are high, head back, eyes closed. 

“The question today is ‘what does music really do to us?’” he said. “It’s really hard to actually believe all of this is actually happening. It’s just too crazy. But here I am, the  final day of filming. The film was finished and everything was done and I knew this journey had actually happened and I, I just let go.”

Following Manzoor was Bernadette Gonzalez, a Mexico City scientist studying how music helps people struggling with Alzheimer’s and dementia. She has found music guiding people toward lost memories. But it’s not just the tunes. It’s the sharing of the musical experience.

“Giving music to elders is relatively easy. Connecting it to one’s self and each other … is a rollercoaster with ups and downs and unexpected changes,” Gonzales said, showing videos of elderly patients in their 80s and 90s whose lives became animated after listening to music from their past together. 

She calls it “listening as an act of love.”

Gonzalez’s Alive Inside Coalition is working to  provide music to 1 million Alzheimer’s and dementia patients by 2025 using 1 million volunteers — including many young students — and a suite of technology that can aid those living with cognitive decline.

Musician Ramy Essam speaks at Telluride’s Original Thinkers festival about playing protest songs for the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011, where thousands of Egyptians were demanding the resignation of president Hosni Mubarak. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Ramy Essam grew up in Cairo thinking music was for the weak. He was into soccer and fighting. “But music came to rescue me,” he says of his young life.

Essam today is known as the voice of the Egyptian Revolution. In February 2011, he reluctantly took his guitar to protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where thousands of Egyptians were demanding the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Clashes with military left more than 840 people killed and thousands injured.

Essam sang every day for weeks, sometimes more than 10 hours a day. 

“The goal was to make the people sing and to encourage the people. The music was the tool to keep them there,” Essam said “I felt so lucky as an artist. You could see everybody as one human being, singing together with one voice for their freedom. I could see the power of the change that music could do. Sometimes it takes years to make the impact, but I was so privileged to see change happening on the spot, immediately. When the revolution comes, the art comes out without thinking and that happened a lot.”

After Mubarak resigned, soldiers grabbed Essam and tortured for him eight hours. A picture taken weeks later shows giant scars across his back. The photo sent gasps through the Telluride ballroom. 

“This day did not kill me so this day made me much stronger. And this day I could see the fears in their eyes. The people who have tanks and machine guns and a crazy amount of soldiers … they were so scared of hundreds of people in the streets chanting peacefully and singing against the regime,” Essam said. 

After he recovered he went back to Tahrir Square. 

“I decided to go back and continue because I saw what really music can do … and the responsibility as an artist that I have to take,” he said. 

His music has been banned in Egypt. He’s living in exile in Scandinavia and performing his anthems across the world. 

“Music is the most powerful and peaceful weapon we can use,” Essam said, “and we should.”


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